For this Syrian activist, hope, like his hometown, is gone

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke today by phone about the situation in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. After a brief letup, the heavy fighting and bombing has resumed there.

Four years ago, Margaret Warner traveled throughout that part of Northwest Syria. She has been back in touch with a man she first met just outside Aleppo.

MARGARET WARNER: It was November 2012 in a small town in Syria, and Saleh Hawa had hopes.

With civil war roiling around him, this father of three, an English literature teacher, was leading demonstrations against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hawa also headed a local civic council in his town in rebel-controlled Northwest Syria. It was working to restore electricity and basic services destroyed by government attacks.

He sounded fairly confident then in his country’s prospects. A formal Syrian opposition coalition had just been created, with the encouragement of Western and Gulf countries.

SALEH HAWA, Local Administrative Council, Haratan, Syria: I am optimistic, because the international community is now cooperating with this council, with this new council. And I think, personally, that most of the Syrian people are with this council.

We are looking forward to a better future, and we are tired now. We are tired now of war. We are tired of shelling every day.

MARGARET WARNER: We spoke in a walled garden in Hawa’s hometown of Haratan, just northwest of Aleppo. We then traveled to the regional headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, made up of self-declared moderate rebels.

Its Commander, Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, told us bluntly how desperately they needed weapons from the United States.

COL. ABDUL-JABBAR AKIDI, Aleppo Region Military Council (through translator): The Syrian people will not forget any country that provides them with support, and will not forgive any country that helps the Assad regime.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the four years since then, none of Hawa’s hopes, but all of his fears, have been realized.

Haratan has been repeatedly pounded by bombing from Russian and Syrian jets, dropping not only explosive-packed barrel bombs, but cluster bombs and the fearsome incendiary white phosphorous. When we first met Hawa, the war had killed 37,000 people. Now it’s 500,000 dead and nine million displaced.

Aleppo and the area around it has become ground zero. Last week, the Russian military announced a short-lived cease-fire, a pause to let humanitarian aid into and around Aleppo, including Hawa’s hometown.

But Hawa, whom we reconnected with via Skype, says there are few lives left to save in his town.

SALEH HAWA: Most of the population of Haratan left the town, because there is no single house which is safe right now. Most of the houses were completely or partially destroyed. And they cannot be lived in again.

So, most of the families left the city, because right now there is no electricity, no water, no food. Even the bakery was targeted. All hospitals, all medical centers were targeted.

MARGARET WARNER: Hawa and wife and children fled Haratan to a nearby town. They’re all safe, he said, but he’s lost many friends, and himself was the target of a car bomb attack in early 2014.

He and others are still teaching at a makeshift college they call the Free University of Aleppo, but he sounds full of despair and bitterness.

SALEH HAWA: We are being butchered under the eye of the international community.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s not just the bombing, he said. His town’s defenders, already fighting ISIS and the Syrian government, then were confronted with other foes. They’d come from afar to defend the Assad regime.

SALEH HAWA: We came face to face with the Shiite militias. And they are mostly Afghani, Afghanistani. Most of them are Iranian, and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Afghanis sponsored by Iran and trained by Iran?

SALEH HAWA: Yes, sure.

MARGARET WARNER: Are they well-equipped?

SALEH HAWA: They’re well-equipped.

MARGARET WARNER: Caught between all these competing forces, Hawa says he and his countrymen have been abandoned, even as endless talks go on between the U.S. and Russians and at times members of the Syrian opposition coalition.

So, can you foresee a political solution at this point?

SALEH HAWA: No. I’m so sorry to say no. I see that the horizon is quite blocked in front of us, because America is not doing anything, or maybe — or maybe America won’t do anything. It’s just that America hasn’t have the will to finish our agony, finish our pains, to finish or sufferings.

We were let down. America let us down. And the situation now is that Russia has got military bases inside Syria. Their warplanes are flying in the sky every time they like.

MARGARET WARNER: Videos of the Syrian people’s suffering have spread worldwide, but Hawa has no faith that the world will respond. Speaking to us now, thousands of miles away, he recalled the expectations he had when we met four years ago.

SALEH HAWA: I hoped, at that time, that America would, in a way, help us to put an end to that dictator who is now in Damascus. I had a hope that there are countries who would help us rebuild our country and help those innocent people.

Now we don’t trust anybody. We don’t trust any country. We have had many promises that they will not allow Bashar al-Assad to destroy our cities. But, right now, you see that the situation is deteriorating even worse than before. And it’s becoming worse. It’s becoming worse and worse day by day.

MARGARET WARNER: And with each day, new casualties and faded hopes of a lasting peace.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner in Washington.

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